Tell us a bit about yourself.
C. P. Lesley is a pen name. In real life, I am a historian specializing in early modern Europe—that is, the 15th through 18th centuries—especially Russia, which is the setting for my next book. People in my field will know who I am when I publish that second book; the pen name is just to separate my fiction from my academic work.
What inspired you to be an author?
I never intended to write fiction, but for as long as I can remember, I have told myself stories before going to sleep. One day, about 15 years ago, I had a scene in such a story exactly where I wanted it, so I wrote it down. Then I wrote the scenes before and after it, and before I knew it I had a quarter of a novel. A very bad novel, I discovered much later, but by then I was hooked on the idea of writing fiction. It took a lot of feedback, much reading of craft books, and the concerted efforts of my writers group to get me to produce anything worth reading, but I’m glad I stuck with it. I’ve learned an enormous amount along the way about what makes a novel work, and that’s despite having been a bookworm all my life.
Is there a particular message in your book/books that you want readers to grasp?
I write for fun, and I hope readers will enjoy my work without worrying about hidden messages. That said, my books tend to focus on the values of cooperation and compromise. And because I’m a historian, I use them to make history accessible in ways that it often isn’t in a classroom while keeping the facts as accurate as I can. But I don’t preach. It drives me nuts when a novel stops the plot cold to give me five pages on political or economic conditions during the period in question, so I deliver the history in digestible chunks and only as it affects my protagonists. If people love the story, I’m happy.
How did you come up with the title for your book/books?
Titles are tough. Mine either come to me right away—I have titles for all five volumes in my Russian series, even though I have only the sketchiest idea of the plots beyond book 2, which I’m beginning now—or they hide in the woodwork and refuse to come out, no matter how many treats I offer. The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, the book I published in June, was one of the hide-in-the-woodwork kind. I went through about five titles before settling on this one, and I’m still not completely happy with it. I picked it because I thought it would work well in search engines: people who love the original Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905) are the natural audience for my book. But I forgot that Orczy wrote about twenty Pimpernel novels, many of them with Scarlet Pimpernel in the title, and there are quite a few titles beginning with “The Not Exactly” as well. So it turned out not to be such a good choice. Although it did get the book onto someone’s website devoted to all things “exactly,” which came as a pleasant surprise.
Where do you get ideas from?
The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel was another book that began as a before-sleep story. I had re-read the original, which I loved when I was a teenager, and couldn’t get the central conflict out of my head. I kept trying to solve the problem, and when I had worked it over enough, I wrote it down. Of course, the job of a novelist is to create conflict, not to resolve it, so the result was that fifty pages into the book I ran out of story and had to develop a new one of my own. That book went through revision after revision, but in the end I produced a version I liked.
The Russian books I approach in a much more focused way. Russian history is so fascinating that I have no trouble finding ideas, and in the 16th century there were none of those modern inventions that make a writer’s life so difficult. No cell phones or Internet, no DNA research, no fingerprints—no police, for that matter. Characters can do all kinds of stuff they can’t hope to get away with these days.
How do you fight writers block?
I get writers block only when I try to force a character, especially a protagonist, to do something that serves the plot but is wrong for that character. Then the dialogue dries up and I can’t see what’s happening. So I’ve learned to stop and figure out what I’m doing that’s not right for the story, and that’s usually enough to kick me back into gear.
Also, I write to relax; it’s not my day job, so if I did stop for a while, no one would care but me. That takes a lot of the pressure off.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I am a “plot first” writer. I can come up with plot twists at the drop of a proverbial hat. But developing rounded characters is hard. Fortunately, my writers group includes a “character first” writer, as well as another plot specialist, so she pokes and prods at my chapters until I produce credible people.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I have so many favorite authors that I can’t pick just one. As I learn more about craft, I find that my approach to reading changes. When I find someone who can really bring a setting and characters to life and keep them moving in ways that make me not want to put the book down, that’s my favorite author of the moment.
Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I would love to travel more, but no. The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel required only that I read a lot of Orczy novels and watch the various movie/television versions. I spent hours studying Anthony Andrews, who did a fantastic job as the Scarlet Pimpernel in an 1982 BBC production. I pretended that was work, but of course it was pure pleasure.
The Golden Lynx, the first of my Russian novels, draws on years of research in the field and past trips to Moscow. It’s my way of conveying ideas that I can’t prove in an academic setting. I’d love to visit Kasimov, Kazan, and the steppe someday, though. Those are all settings in the Lynx series, called Legends of the Five Directions. Failing that, there’s Google Earth, which gets better every day. Still, there’s nothing quite like having memories of a place when you are trying to recreate it for a reader.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
This will sound odd, but the hardest part was to get past thinking like a historian. Novelists get inside people’s heads. That’s the charm of novels: they let us see something real life never permits—how other people think, as distinct from what they want us to know. Historians don’t get inside people’s heads, because we work from documents, and even if you have access to someone’s letters or diaries, you see only what they wanted you to see when they wrote. So to get to the point where I could reproduce a character’s experience from the inside took years, literally.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned tons. Mostly about writing, as I mentioned before. But also a lot of details about revolutionary France (in Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel) and Tatar culture (in Golden Lynx). I love the research. It’s almost as much fun as the writing.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Revise, revise, revise. And read everything you can about the craft of writing. Don’t send your book out as soon as you finish it. You’ll think it’s ready, but it’s not. Instead, find other fiction writers with compatible personalities and, if you are lucky, different strengths and have them read the book and comment. Then revise some more.
It’s not new advice, but it is worth heeding. The truth is that writing takes time to master, even if you’re an avid reader. As J. K. Rowling put in in her Harvard commencement address, “You have to kill a lot of trees before you write anything good.” And these days, with e-readers and iPads, you don’t even have to kill trees. But you do have to practice.